A Marketer’s Nightmare: Commission-Based Furniture Sales

My husband and I are getting ready to move, and so we’ve been spending quite a bit of time shopping for furniture, appliances, and housewares, visiting retailers both large and small, independently owned and big-box. Of course, as a marketer and as someone who works closely with sales pros, I’m constantly critiquing these stores’ messaging and sales strategies.

For example, today I was at a large store we’ll call Tom’s Furnishing Superstore (but it was really Bob’s Discount Furniture). As expected, a swarm of salivating salespeople immediately began spouting off the discounts and incentives du jour as soon as my husband and I walked through the doors. This type of behavior is the reason I hate going to furniture stores. Aggressive, hovering salespeople make me uncomfortable, and their selling style is incredibly ineffective — your pitch shouldn’t precede any understanding of your buyer’s needs. Nevertheless, Tom’s redeemed itself with one clever in-store tactic: they had a cafe with tables, huge jars of complimentary candy and carafes of coffee, lemonade, and tea for shoppers waiting on paperwork or bored children. Their prices were competitive, but their selling techniques have ensured that I’ll be making my purchase online.

After our trip to Tom’s, we headed to an appliance and electronic store that I’ll call JJ Craig (but it was really HH Gregg). We were mercifully greeted by just a single salesperson, who got off on the right foot by asking us a few questions before delving into the weekend’s sales. But things went downhill when we requested more details on the products. It became clear that he wasn’t familiar with the appliances he was trying to sell us. He was flipping through manuals for basic capabilities. He couldn’t tell us if the microwave/hood had a matching oven and refrigerator (It did. We found them.) So, although he was appropriately eager, he couldn’t really sell because he didn’t understand what he was selling.

Now, listen, I understand that a commission-based retail job is no walk in the park. These two salesmen are not in charge of their company’s marketing, pricing, and likely did not receive a great deal of training. However, you don’t need to be at the corporate level to implement these basic sales and marketing strategies:

1. Know your product. Use it. Talk to people who use it. You can’t market what you don’t understand.

2. Know your customer. The sales guys I met this weekend were obviously motivated to make a sale. But they weren’t interested in what I wanted to buy. Neither of them spent much time finding out what I was looking for. Instead, they focused on the pre-packaged incentives designed to make me spend a ton of money, and when my needs didn’t fit into this package, they fumbled.

2. Don’t treat your customer like a target. Because of their aggressive commission structure, sales pros tail you through aisles of appliances and stand awkwardly close to you in crowded living room displays. They repeat their name to you over and over, shoving piles of business cards into your hands, not because they want you to call them by name but because they don’t want you to forget to mention their name at check out. Instead of putting so much effort into tracking the customer like a hunter, focus on offering expertise and service, and loyalty will naturally follow.